A salute to a songwriter of “eloquent simplicity”.
According to Ray Wylie Hubbard, “Guy Clark, Townes Van Zandt and Billy Joe Shaver were the Holy Trinity of Texas songwriters”. “My favourite songwriter” is how Johnny Cash rated Billy Joe Shaver and in Willie Nelson’s estimation he was, “definitely the best writer in Texas”. Yet despite being credited as an originator of outlaw country and writer of so many classic songs, much of Billy Joe Shaver’s fame came via other people. On arrival in Nashville in 1965 he wrote songs for Bobby Bare. Seven years later he wrote ten of the eleven songs on Waylon Jennings’s ‘Honky Tonk Heroes’, considered the first outlaw country record. And so Shaver continued writing for many others. This tribute brings that collaboration up to date with a selection of Shaver classics performed by some distinguished contemporary artists. Producers Charlie Sexton and Freddy Fletcher pay deep homage to Billy Joe Shaver. In terms of love for this great songwriter the choice of both songs and artists are wonderful.
Willie Nelson would top any list of candidates for this task. Unsurprisingly, he gets two shots. Lucinda Williams and he do full justice to the opener and Shaver signature, ‘Live Forever’. Duetting reflectively over a flowing melody they recognise nobody can fulfil Shaver’s dream, “I’m gonna live forever/ I’m gonna cross that river/ I’m gonna catch tomorrow now”. Solo, Nelson accords equal acclaim to ‘Georgia On A Fast Train’, covered by his friend Cash.
‘I’m Just An Old Chunk Of Coal (But I’m Gonna Be A Diamond Someday)’ shows Miranda Lambert does a light honky tonk every bit as well as she does big country. From another massive country name, George Strait gives a version of ‘Willy The Wandering Gypsy And Me’ as smooth as the opening, “three fingers of whiskey”. Rodney Crowell could not have been anything but first choice for ‘Old Five And Dimers Like Me’, the clarity of his voice matching the simplicity of the lyric. He exemplifies the essence of Shaver’s ability to articulate complex emotion, “For old five and dimers like me/ Too far and too high/ And too deep ain’t too much to see”.
With Joshua Hedley Margo Price gives ‘Ragged Old Truck’ the full old-time country treatment. If anyone doubts Price’s place alongside the classic country singers give this a spin. Ryan Bingham and “the queen of outlaw country” Nikki Lane show why Shaver is considered the father of that genre with their full throttle ‘Ride Me Down Easy’ as they duet over a blast of electric guitars. Ol’ Waylon should be looking down with approval. And while on outlaw country Steve Earle had to be here. ‘Ain’t No God In Mexico’ swaggers to a firm beat marching towards what we now call americana, a fiddle around his growl being a useful reminder of where he came from.
Two of the testimonial’s most poignant moments come first from Edie Brickell whose folk roots turns ‘I Couldn’t Be Me Without You’ into a particularly deep muse. Then Allison Russell wraps up the collection with ‘Tramp On Your Street’, wringing every drop of emotion from Shaver’s deeply soulful side.
Inevitably, such tributes will prompt, “but where is…?” But perhaps that is to miss the point. As Courtney S. Lennon wrote in her book (AUK review), ’Live Forever: The Songwriting Legacy of Billy Joe Shaver’, “he was transcendent in his presence and his words”. That perfectly encapsulates ‘Live Forever: A Tribute to Billy Joe Shaver’.